ELKHART LAKE â In a word? âBusy.â
Thatâs how Matt DiBenedetto described the six days since a second-place Cup Series finish helped turn him into NASCARâs newest darling.
No, Bristol didnât end in a win.
And no, DiBenedetto doesnât have a job lined up for next year.
But the 28-year-old journeyman floated into Road America knowing he would have a chance to win Saturday in the Xfinity Series on one of his favorite tracks. He already is front and center on the collective mind of an exploding legion of fans and followers and, hopefully, team owners and potential sponsors.
âThe attention and support we got from fans in general, that was unreal,â DiBenedetto said. âThe crowd cheering when I was about to get interviews on the big screen, everybody screaming, the whole place, I was like, is there a fight going on or something?
âAnd then I was like, oh, thatâs for us. I couldnât believe it.â
DiBenedettoâs runner-up finish to Denny Hamlin on the Tennessee short track came at the perfect time.
Days earlier heâd learned he would not return to Leavine Family Racing, an announcement thatÂ turned a 10-year underdog into the Cup Seriesâ sentimental favorite. It also put a black hat on team owner Bob Leavine and to a lesser degree Christopher Bell, the Toyota-backed phenom who will presumably replace him.
âNot everybody can fully understand the situation, because itâs not like Bob Leavine doesnât want me back in the car, itâs just the financial situation and whatâs going to be best for their team to keep going and make it easiest on them,â DiBenedetto said. âHe doesnât deserve any of that flak.
âHeâs invested millions of dollars in letting me drive that race car this year and giving me the opportunity to go out and prove myself. I understand that people are just upset for me being out of a ride, but itâs not his fault at all. Heâs just doing what he can to make it long-term in this sport and he wants to keep going.â
The build-up to DiBenedettoâs best NASCAR finish has been slow and steady since he and crew chief Mike Wheeler landed at Leavine in the offseason and the team switched manufacturers from Chevrolet to Toyota. Although DiBenedettoâs average result is 19.7 this season, since the beginning of June, itâs been 13, with just two finishes outside the top 20.
âI know weâve been on a little roll âŚ because of everything in the shopâs been going smoother,â DiBenedetto said. âIf (we) go out there and we can keep doing these top-fives, top-10s âŚ we were so close to a win last week we could sneak a win off.â
DiBenedetto did get some good news last week â even before the Bristol finish â when Steve de Souza, who runs the Xfinity and development programs for Joe Gibbs Racing, called to inquire about his availability on a weekend off for the Cup Series. The team had a seat available for Saturdayâs Xfinity Series CTech Manufacturing 180 following the departure of Jeffrey Earnhardt.
Â âWhen I got the phone call I was jumping up and down, I was so excited,â said DiBenedetto, who made his series debut in 2009 with Gibbs and had emailed de Souza before the season.
Although Joe Gibbs Racing has not won at Road America, its cars typically contend. This is DiBenedettoâs first race in the series since 2016.
âAny opportunity to go try to win is good,â he said âWinning is good. Thatâs good for your career and for the team and for Toyota, for everybody.
âWhat Iâm trying to do, itâs a hell of an opportunity. Not only an opportunity to come and have fun at one of my favorite places â and road courses are my favorite thing to do, period â but to come and try to win is a great opportunity to try and build my resume.â
DiBenedetto said he hasnât heard from any team owners this week, but he has from countless drivers whose referrals could be helpful.
DiBenedetto would prefer to stay in the Cup Series but said he wouldnât rule out an Xfinity ride with the potential to win. He was of the understanding Gibbs is full for next season, even with the anticipated promotion of Bell.
âI hope it doesnât sound naĂŻve but every time a door has closed and Iâve been absolutely devastated, every time in my whole life going back to a kid, itâs always opened a better door,â DiBenedetto said.
Â âI donât expect it to stop now just because weâve been lucky enough to have that good performance and Iâve been able to prove myself and weâve been able to prove ourselves as a team more this year than Iâve ever been able to do.
âI hope it works out. I feel it will.â
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